By Melissa Deckman
It is no secret that white evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump in record numbers last November. While some pundits predicted that Trump’s boorish behavior might have been off-putting to many theologically conservative voters, 81 percent of white evangelical Protestants were willing to overlook his personal flaws, slightly higher than the number of evangelicals who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. Their vote for Trump, the conventional wisdom has quickly deduced, was about the opportunity Republicans had to shape the direction of the Supreme Court in a more conservative way, combined with their disdain for Hillary Clinton and their approval of Trump’s trumpeting of religious liberty concerns on the campaign trail.
Lost in this analysis, however, is the extent to which white evangelical Protestants hold similar attitudes on economic policy long touted by the Republican Party. As one of the GOP’s most reliable constituencies, Evangelicals may have been brought to the party initially by concerns over social issues such as abortion, but they have also come to hold reliably conservative views on economic concerns.
In new research published in Politics & Religion (which is ungated for the next month), my co-authors Dan Cox, Robert Jones, and Betsy Cooper from PRRI and I demonstrate that white evangelicals hold far more conservative views on two key economic issues that currently divide the parties. First, we find that white evangelicals are far more likely than other religious (and unaffiliated) Americans to believe that the federal government should provide fewer services and reduce taxes as opposed to believing that the federal government should provide more services, even if it means higher taxes (See Figure 1). Multivariate analysis confirms that white evangelicals hold such distinct views in the presence of additional statistical controls – they are 1.3 times less likely than other Americans to favor a larger role for government in providing social services. In essence, white evangelicals believe that individuals – and not the government – should take a greater role in providing for their most pressing needs.
Moreover, white evangelicals are also far more likely than other religious adherents to believe that the best way to stimulate government growth is to reduce taxes and cut government spending, as opposed to the government making more investments in infrastructure and education (see Figure 2). White evangelicals are roughly 1.4 times less likely to believe that public investment is the best way to spur economic growth.
The economic conservatism expressed by white evangelical Protestants is closely linked to their strong partisan leanings. A majority (69%) of white evangelical Protestants identify as Republican or lean toward the Republican Party. In expressing distrust of government services and programs, white evangelical Protestants may simply be articulating a political belief system they have long since internalized. However, neither the shifting partisan allegiances of white evangelical Protestants, nor the growing polarization of the parties on basic economic questions, may completely explain the sharply divergent attitudes white evangelicals express on government intervention in the economy.
We also argue that the emergence of the Tea Party, which has been credited for moving the Republican Party in a more conservative direction on many economic issues, may have played a role as well. Tea Party organizations, in collaboration with conservative think tanks and religious organizations, have embraced a biblically-backed view of economic conservatism, which has found appeal among many white evangelical Protestants. Our analysis in the journal article, in fact, examines General Social Survey data since the early 2000s, showing that while white evangelicals have long held more conservative views on economic policy than most Americans, their attitudes on the size and scope of government began to diverge in a more conservative direction after the rise of the Tea Party in 2009.
The important point here is that the allegiance that many white evangelicals feel for the GOP is not only present because of cultural concerns. White evangelicals have come to support conservative economic positions long espoused by Republicans nationally, including their embrace of tax cuts as a way to stimulate the nation’s economy. While Trump’s emphasis on religious liberty and national security may have appealed to many white evangelicals, his promise of tax cuts certainly did not hurt.
Melissa Deckman is a professor of public affairs at Washington College and the author of “Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right.” Follow her on Twitter @melissadeckman.